Sunday, December 22, 2013

Assam as Fast as Possible

Agarwood plantation
This is a reprint of a 2010 AbsoluteTrygve post

Things tend to move fast. And here I am feeling a bit like I’ve been chewed and spit out, but at least I avoided the canines, the grinders and the molars, so a good shake ought to be enough to set things right. Right.

I was pretty lame when I bought the ticket to India. The only thing I looked at was the length of time Oman to India. Completely spaced on the two Indian connections I had to make in Mumbai and Delhi. All I can say is don’t do it. Jet is a good airline but Jet Lite copies the American carriers—it’s best avoided, but it is cheap at least. Back to back flights on it, though, are rough. And the actual Airports are still under the control of the government. They must be. A private company could never get away with it. I won’t say more but if you are thinking to save a few dollars by not taking the direct flight……spend them instead. All your primal instincts will come into the fore if you attempt the “free shuttle bus” at Mumbai. On the other hand, if you are looking to prove yourself, to test your limits, then it’s just the ticket.

So here I am in Assam, a place I always wanted to visit, and it’s just beautiful and green as I imagined even though it will be greener in and after the monsoon. Assam is famous for tea and rhinos, and I am still thinking about going to see these pretty, yet easily irritated beasts.
Agarwood trees....

Insect infestation
The tea I saw and tea plantations dot the hillsides, running a rich green carpet luxuriously over undulating countryside. Assam feels wild as well, and there doesn’t seem to be much commercialization. As usual in rural India, the people seem like they work very hard; plowing is done with buffalos, and there are not many cars. Everyone is on foot or maybe bicycle. The women are as pretty, graceful and elegant as always, in bright delicious colors, dupattas flowing. Wild elephants still visit the agarwood plantations at night, but Tajul says they do no damage.

Tajul has an agarwood farm near Nagaon, with about 30,000 trees scattered over a couple of forest plots. The oldest ones are over 12 years old. One of the most interesting and satisfying things is that according to him, the infection will usually occur naturally. It’s a question of time. That means that all those people who jumped on the bandwagon with big investments in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Laos, etc, the ones who are all freaking out because they have lost money and just want their investment back and to get the hell out asap……..they are victims of their own impatience, nothing more. If the infection occurs naturally with 99% of the trees, which is what I’m hearing today, then the ones who are trying to manipulate it have started their whole cycle with a desire to go push the natural process, to artificially accelerate, inseminate, to go faster, to improve on nature, and all under the guise of “sustainability” even if it was not very well thought out sustainability.

And it’s been a disaster for almost everyone. Most people then will not benefit from growing agarwood, particularly modern people in a hurry. Americans? Australians? Thais? Nah. You need patience! Nothing more difficult and nothing more fitting or funnier.
Insect infestation

Supposedly, no innoculation is needed in Assam...
I may be proven wrong in the next few days as I continue my journey around Assam, but that’s ok. One thing about agarwood, once you know something, you can be sure the information will change completely and then you’ll know nothing again! Sometimes the answers are hard to see because of their obviousness. Most of the time we look in books, or worse, online, and think someone else has the answers. I feel quite vindicated actually, since I was so repulsed at the torturous tree treatments I encountered at the Bangkok conference in 2007.

But despite all this, I expect that even the most stalwart and patient individual will still jump on a short cut if they can. And the trees do make some money, especially here in Assam where people have planted a couple in their yards, not 15,000. So maybe one day the forced infections will succeed.

Whether the agarwood is used for oil or chips is a decision made differently here than in Laos. There, the basic rule is: if it’s over 2000 bhat a kilo, don’t cook it. Here, the “partly processed” wood—that means cut up into manageable pieces, are examined closely and any signs of infection are cut out. It’s a lot of labor. Then the darker pieces, the ones that look even a little bit interesting, are taken for wood chips, and the rest is distilled. So maybe 40% chips, 60% distilled. And I found I was wrong about Boyah.

Boyah is the distilled white wood. I thought it had to come from cultivated trees but no. Boyah is always going to harden at room temperature. I did know that. But I thought it was related to the age of the tree. I think there is just some point of no return with minute parts of oil/resin in the wood and below that it’s boyah time. Boyah can smell great. We have one at Enfleurage and it’s a particularly nice one. But it’s not oudh, even if it technically is. According to Tajul, one of the main uses of Biyah is for Paan, and its job is to make the paan more addictive. So I guess you’d call it an addicitvent.

Sometimes white wood is mixed with infected wood and that is called Kundaboyah. That’s going to be agarwood oil (oudh) that hardens. Confused? Me too but I’m comfortable with it.

Burning some
The oil he is distilling now is wild wood from Nagaland. I have to say that although I know plenty of people will contest this, I have not seen oil from cultivated wood. A little boyah, yes, perhaps, but not oudh. So here we are again with the wild wood, and I’m glad for it. There are even a couple of tolas on their way to Enfleurage. It’s smells like the moon, glorious shining luxury. Actually, thisway this oil smells reminds me of what I had filed away in my brain under “Cambodian.”

Even though I still don’t think this tree is an endangered species, I have to admit that a lot of firewood goes into the maw. The agarwood is distilled 7-10 days and then again for 10-15 days and the fire goes all that time. In Laos it’s done with coal, and that has to be made—and it’s not a nice job, I figure it could be compared to salting cabbage in outdoor pits for the North Korean Army in winter. I use gas for my Luban but I’m sure there’s a drawback to that too.

On the other side of things, Tajul has a goat donating scheme. They pick a village and donate female goats to a few women. The first baby goat the women keep. The second goes back to Tajul. The third and fourth kids are sold and the money divided. By the fifth kid the family keeps the goat. So everyone benefits—the women get a little income, their children get goat’s milk, and Tajul gets more money and goats to donate further.

The food here is great. Of course, that’s no surprise as it’s India. Assamese food is very different from the other Indian cuisines and there have been several dishes that I couldn’t even guess at. All veg though. For breakfast we had pooris lighter than a cloud and a chickpea/potato bhaji curry, for dinner last night and lunch yesterday and today there was plenty of local rice, with a strong and extremely pleasing fresh rice smell. Makes me realize how much rice smells old. There was a dish that looked like eggplant but was apparently papaya! Smelled like nothing I can imagine—I will ask further about it, but it was a milestone kind of dish…lots of dahl, vegetables including cauliflower, spinach fritters that disturbed me with their overwhelming tastiness and for some reason, their small size and shape. I would never have guessed spinach if I hadn’t been told. On and On. And one more meal tonight. All meals have been taken at Tajul’s sisters house here in Nagaon.

Gotta add water for a long distillation

Even though my room here—I am staying at the Forestry Guest House, is cacophonous with traffic noise, the night air is also full of birdsongs, which I can hear in and out of the horns, motorbikes, and other screeching. I was surprised to learn that tomorrow I have a TV interview as well as with several print media!

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